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Alice Parker, Composer Who Heard Music in Poetry, Dies at 98

Alice Parker, whose arrangements of hymns, folk songs, and spirituals were used in concert halls and churches across America, and who composed 11 song cycles and four operas, died at her home in Hawley, Mass. on Dec. 24. She was 98.

Her death was confirmed by two of her children, Molly Stejskal and David Pyle.

Ms. Parker’s simple renderings of traditional hymns like “Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal,” spirituals like “You Can Tell the World,” and Christmas carols and folk songs, made her a trusted partner for choirs all over the country.

For two decades, she also worked with the most prominent American chorus of her day, the Robert Shaw Chorale, collaborating with Mr. Shaw on hundreds of works.

Insightful settings of poems by Emily Dickinson and Archibald MacLeish gave her a footing in the world of the art song.

And her use of texts by Martin Luther King Jr. for an oratorio written for the anniversary of his death, “Sermon From the Mountain,” and by Eudora Welty for an opera first performed with Ms. Welty sitting in the audience in Jackson, Miss., testified to her broad humanist sympathies.

But it was Ms. Parker’s devotion to choral song over eight decades, and her conviction that communal singing was a deeply human activity, that gave her a distinctive place in American music. That devotion connected her to the earliest traditions of organized American music-making, the congregational singing in colonial churches that was served by the country’s first composers.

Ms. Parker, far left, on the cover of a Dec. 29, 1947, issue of Newsweek, portrayed singing with the Robert Shaw Chorale.Credit…via Newsweek

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Trained in music at Smith College and Juilliard, Ms. Parker rejected the mid-20th century’s modernist 12-tone orthodoxies in favor of an older, modal approach.

The resulting simplicity in her choral settings, whether of her own compositions or of the tunes of others, made her music accessible to the broadest possible public.

“She is a giant, was a giant in the field of choral music,” said E. Wayne Abercrombie, professor of music emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “She was incredibly focused on music at the ground level.”

“She wasn’t about professional choirs,” he added. “She was focused on getting everybody singing. She would go into the church for an hour or two, and have people singing hymns.”

For Ms. Parker singing served a deeper purpose than simply providing pleasure.

“When we sing something perfectly lovely together, not necessarily the B minor Mass or something that needs a lot of rehearsal, but a hymn, or a folk song, or a children’s song, we sing it together, and it really clicks, and you have this marvelous feeling of brotherhood in the room,” she said in an interview with Newmusic USA in 2022.

Her affinity for the civil rights movement was influenced by these beliefs, as was her partnership with the southern humanism of Ms. Welty. Ms. Parker adapted Ms. Welty’s novella “The Ponder Heart” for an opera of the same name. She drew on southern musical traditions — barbershop quartets, blues, gospel, scat singing — to produce “just the right tone” of heartfelt simplicity for Ms. Welty’s work, in the view of The New York Timescritic Edward Rothstein, reviewing the work’s premiere in 1982.

“If all this had been more sophisticated, less basic and more self-conscious, the beating of that innocent Ponder heart might have sounded unbelievable,” Mr. Rothstein wrote.

Like her earlier operas, two of them based on religious themes, this one featured the basic orchestration and easy tunefulness that were hallmarks of her work.

Ms. Parker came by her “simple” style having overcome, in a yearslong internal struggle, what the academy had tried to impose on her.

Ms. Parker conducting a rehearsal. “I would hear the music in the poetry as I read the poetry,” she said.Credit…via Parker Family

For years, “I didn’t compose a single thing,” she said. “And when I finally started again, it was things for children’s choir, because then I didn’t have any responsibility toward writing the music of the future,” the modernist styles she rejected.

“Once that dam broke inside of me, within three or four years, I was writing whole cantatas, whole suites of music, finding wonderful poetic texts that I wanted to set and could set,” she added. “I would hear the music in the poetry as I read the poetry.”

Alice Stuart Parker Pyle was born on Dec. 16, 1925, in Boston, the daughter of Gordon Parker, a businessman who imported hardwood, and Mary Shumate (Stuart) Parker, who founded a plastics laminate company. She sang and played the piano from an early age, graduated from Smith College with majors in organ and composition in 1947, and went on to study choral conducting with Robert Shaw and Julius Herford at the Juilliard School, from which she graduated in 1949.

Her subsequent association with Mr. Shaw resulted in numerous albums of folk song and hymn arrangements. “They are written so that amateur singers can sing them, but professionals can bring them to a different level,” said Mr. Abercrombie. “That’s a real gift.”

Ms. Parker married a fellow singer in the Robert Shaw Chorale, baritone Thomas Pyle, in 1954. He died in 1976.

Ms. Parker is survived by her five children, David Pyle, Molly Stejskal, Timothy Pyle, Katharine Bryda, and Elizabeth Pyle; a sister, Mary Stuart Parker Cosby; 11 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren.

Immediately after the assassination of Dr. King, in April 1968, she was commissioned by the Franconia Mennonite Chorus to write a work to commemorate him. “Central to an understanding of the man and his mission must be the realization that he took the Sermon on the Mount with complete, terrifying literalness,” she wrote in notes for the piece.

In a 2020 documentary about her by the filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley, she recalled her gratitude at receiving the order from the Mennonites as a distraction from her own grief. “I can only write for a perceived need,” she told Mr. Montes-Bradley. “I can’t write for a concert.” In this case the need was partly her own.

Ms. Parker conducting in a class in 2016. Credit…Chase Heilman/Starboard & Port

In 1984 Ms. Parker founded a choir, Melodious Accord, with whom she made over a dozen choral albums. In the following decade she moved back permanently to the farm that had been her childhood summer home in Hawley, in the hills of western Massachusetts, having lived for many years in New York. She focused on teaching, and on singing at her church.

“What she was able to do was bring out the music in us,” recalled the Rev. Allen Comstock of Charlemont Federated Church in Hawley. He remembered the hundreds of people who came to her workshop. They sat with her for a week, he said, to listen and learn.

Although she focused on the joy of singing, she was deeply affected by tragedy, especially the deaths of Dr. King and her husband. This despair surfaced in her later work, notably a dark song cycle to poems of Emily Dickinson, “Heavenly Hurt” (2016). Dickinson was an “obsession” for her, she told Mr. Montes-Bradley.

She and Dickinson, she told the filmmaker, had been “shaped by something in the New England soil that seems to be concerned with big questions — life and death, and love and suffering, joy and sorrow.”

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